Help Desk

Help Desk: Why Your Show Wasn’t Reviewed

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

None of my shows have ever been reviewed, even though I’ve been exhibiting my work in solo and group shows for almost six years. Press releases, personal emails, and newsletters have been sent from me and from the galleries. The galleries aren’t blue-chip, but they’re decent, and there’s an audience. Why can’t I get a review?

John Divola. As Far As I Could Get (R02F09), 10 Seconds, 1996-7; pigment print; 60 x 40 in.

John Divola. As Far As I Could Get (R02F09), 10 Seconds, 1996-7; pigment print; 60 x 40 in.

There’s a strong possibility that in the same moment you submitted your question, I was standing in an exhibition space and wondering if I would or could write anything interesting about the work in front of me. Not every critic has the same constraints as I do, so I’m going to answer your query from my perspective alone; below are all the reasons that (to date) I have not written a review of an exhibition.

Before I give you my list, let’s agree that writing about art isn’t easy. The reason we make representational images and abstracted forms is because the ideas and feelings behind them are slippery and changeable, reshaping themselves from moment to moment. Meanwhile, a word is a fence—it codifies and concretizes, thus a review is an attempt at the interpretation of something whose function is to defy a final analysis. Further, the words a critic ends up using depend a lot on her race, class, gender, and education. An exhibition review can tell you more about the critic than it does about the art, and in the same way that artists sometimes feel tremulous about presenting their work to the world, the critic can feel equally wobbly because her interpretation of this ever-vacillating thing comes with the possibility that art historians, editors, fellow critics, curators, or the artist herself will say, “You’re wrong.” Taking a position and substantiating one’s claims is challenging and sometimes laborious.

Now to our list: If I like your work, there still might be a host of practical reasons why I’m not able to write about it. Please know that a lack of reviews doesn’t mean that your work doesn’t have merit. For example, sometimes I learn about exhibitions too late. Here at Daily Serving, our editorial calendar is made a month in advance, and we only publish “live” reviews for shows that are still open. If one of our critics does see your show and loves it, we won’t be able to review it unless we have a free slot before the show closes.

If you have a personal relationship with local critics, it might prevent them from writing about your work. Daily Serving has a conflict-of-interest policy, and it prevents me from writing about artwork made by my family, friends, business partners, and anyone with whom I’ve ever shared a bed. To be honest, I like our conflict-of-interest policy, but then, I’m the one who instated it in 2013 when I accepted the job of managing editor. Frankly, I don’t want to be tempted to review artwork by friends whose work I like, because then I’ll have to explain why I’m not writing about other friends’ work that I don’t like. Better to have friends, is my motto.

Time is frequently a consideration. I write for other publications, and these days, chances are excellent that I’m already busy with other writing assignments. Or just too busy, period—like the vast majority of art critics, I juggle more than one job. Sometimes they overwhelm me and I don’t have time to write about art, which pays the least; when the bills are due I turn my attention to more lucrative projects.

It’s not always my decision which shows I cover. Editors often turn writers down for reasons related to schedule or taste, and I’ve had six pitches rejected in the last three months. There’s always the prospect that a critic has wanted to write about your work but couldn’t find a venue.

Of course, maybe I disliked the work, or I didn’t feel engaged by it. I won’t struggle for hours to find les mots justes for something I feel lukewarm about. Even a show that makes me angry or upset (and there are any number of reasons why and how that might happen) doesn’t usually warrant my time. Negative reviews—or the ones that aren’t merely a receptacle for unbridled snark—take at least twice as much effort to write.

There’s the rare possibility that you were once a complete jerk to me. A few people out there behave very badly toward others for no better reason than to bolster their tiny egos, and I likely won’t review their exhibitions. This might seem obvious, but art critics are humans and we have feelings that can be hurt; unfortunately for the assholes of this world, I also have a very long memory.

Perhaps you are exhibiting your work in a busy month and/or in a city where there are tons of great shows? It can be hard to garner column inches in some locations and at particular times of the year (such as September, when the season opens), and you may want to get your work out of town or show it in the summer if you’re craving attention from a critic. Competition for reviews can be fierce in New York City, but maybe you can catch a critic’s eye in Philadelphia or St. Louis or Seattle.

Apart from these considerations, sometimes life just happens and there’s no space for writing. Critics get married or divorced, have babies, get new jobs, or are in the middle of a cross-country move during the run of your exhibition. Last spring in San Francisco there was an excellent retrospective for a performance artist. I had written about this artist’s work before in the context of a group show, and was looking forward to digging deep into her work. I spent hours at the show, taking reference photos and watching documentation videos, but I could barely take notes; when it came to saying something interesting or intelligent about the work, I was struck dumb. Earlier that same week, we’d gotten news that my mother’s leukemia had returned and that she had only months to live. There is no way to explain my situation other than to simply say that I had run out of words, a condition that persisted until a few months after her death.

I am an artist too, and I know very well that when your exhibition comes down and it hasn’t been reviewed, it can feel as though it never existed and that all your hard work was for naught. Remember that there are other ways to get your work into print: You can work with a writer to do an interview, or you can submit work to programs like our own Fan Mail series (or Hyperallergic’s “A View from the Easel,” MoMA’s Studio Visit program, or SFMoMA’s Tumblr). Continue to document your exhibitions, and make sure you’re getting your work in front of the right people. If you’re resolute and your practice continues to evolve, the critics will come. In the meantime, try to be patient with us. Good luck!